2016 is a banner year for video game movies; Warcraft, Ratchet & Clank, and Assassin’s Creed will all be getting the big screen treatment. But, before any of that, Hardcore Henry is releasing on April 8. An action film that adapts a first-person view for its entire running time, Hardcore Henry is obviously inspired by the first-person shooter genre. Heck, the movie even finds a way to make the titular character mute! Just as films influenced video games — Contra is more than a little indebted to Aliens — video games are now beginning to influence films. In anticipation for Hardcore Henry, here’s ten films that owe a gratitude to the gaming world in one way or another.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis cyberpunk action masterpiece brings the video game concept to a shocking conclusion: reality itself is a programmed simulation that we are all unknowingly taking part in. The Matrix was groundbreaking in a multitude of ways, and part of that was helping to intensify video game culture in the adult mainstream. The film even left its legacy on games with its popular “bullet time” effect becoming a staple of games like Rockstar Studios’ Max Payne. Though the sequels get more metaphysical and less cohesive, the original is a fast-paced science fiction classic that takes the infinite possibilities of a digital world and turns it into something more sinister than we could have imagined.
In case the Robotron 2084 high score screen in the opening credits don’t give it away, then the post-credits scene in Crank (above) should clue you in to this movie’s adoration of ‘8os arcade games. Leading character Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) even hides his career as a professional criminal by saying he’s a video game programmer. Crank is a run-and-gun game brought to life with more than a little Grand Theft Auto sprinkled in for some extra spice. The sequel doubles down on all of the insanity of the original, but Crank will always feel more like the video games it worships. Be on the lookout for the Berzerk main character on a bathroom door.
Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor took their love of video games to the next level (sorry) with Gamer, a sci-fi action film that posited a future where death row convicts are used as pawns in a deathmatch game. The movie is littered with over-the-top action and acting (Terry Crews and Michael C. Hall both go full ham in this), but it is interesting to see a world where video games have integrated themselves so fully into a culture that they play a part in our legal system. Truth be told, Gamer isn’t a fantastic film but it’s wacky spirit and dedication to its world make it worth a watch. And we can always use more Gerard Butler in our lives.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
If there’s any film on this list that wears its video game influences on its sleeve, it’s Edgar Wright’s hyperkinetic teen comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The story itself is based around a self-absorbed slacker who has to battle his new girlfriend’s exes, taking inspiration from countless fighting games. Most of the world itself is built around references to video games (mostly Nintendo franchises like Zelda and Mario) but when the aesthetic itself jumps into actual video game language, things get crazier than you can imagine. It’ not a film for everyone, but for those that it is for, it’s something of a minor masterpiece.
Sucker Punch (2011)
Before he was building the foundation of the DC Extended Universe, Zack Snyder was able to make one of the most ambitious passion projects of all time. Though Sucker Punch is a frenzied hodgepodge of pop culture influence (including anime, opera, high fantasy, and science fiction), the video game element is fairly obvious: the inmates of the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane enter multiple dream worlds where they must defeat some ridiculous scenario in order to obtain a necessary item that will aid in their escape. It’s here where we start to see video game narrative structure really start to influence more and more films, and though it’s not a particularly good example of that, Sucker Punch is an important step towards games and films beginning to coalesce in terms of how they are constructed.
The Raid (2011) / Dredd (2012)
These two films often get lumped together due to their central conceit of taking place primarily in a high rise tower and needing to reach the top floor. Yes, Dredd and The Raid do share a setting of sorts, but they are completely different kinds of films. The Raid is a purposefully brutal martial arts film and Dredd is an ’80s throwback a la RoboCop. But, it is worth noting that the idea of being locked in a place where the protagonists must ascend levels in order to reach the “final boss” is the same setup as an arcade game like Magic Sword. It’s a simple formula that filmmakers are beginning to see the benefits of utilizing. Case in point…
Director Joon Ho Bong (The Host) adapts a French graphic novel about a train that serves as mankind’s last refuge in a world ravaged by climate change. The train’s cars are divided into classes with the poor towards the back and the rich towards the front. The main story focuses on Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the poor citizens living in the caboose, leading a revolution to take control of the train. Yet again this idea of progression and clearing “levels” pops up, giving the movie the kind of propulsion that is inherent when you play video games. Once again, the protagonists are making their way to a “final boss”, in this case the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). It’s a tonally bizarre movie (most Korean films I’ve seen often are), but never a boring one.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Many will say that Edge of Tomorrow‘s gimmick of having its main character continue to repeat a single day is reminiscent of Groundhog Day, and they’d be right to make that initial connection, but Edge of Tomorrow is adding a very video game-y twist on the scenario. Not just because the movie is a sci-fi action film, but because Cage’s (Tom Cruise) resurrections feel like starting a level over after losing a life. Bill Murray’s quest in Groundhog Day is an existential one that’s more Waiting for Godot than Gauntlet, but Cage’s is one motivated by the survival of the human race. Those raised stakes along with the movie’s breezy tone makes Edge of Tomorrow feel like you’re watching your best friend die over and over on some level, and if they’d just hand you the controller you could show them how it’s done.
John Wick (2014)
I hope that time will look as favorably on John Wick as I currently do. With its almost mythical world of assassins and gangsters, John Wick already feels like it exists in a more heightened reality, but it’s the action scenes that catapult it straight into video game territory. When John Wick (Keanu Reeves) annihilates people in this movie, it’s pretty much a fight scene from a Batman: Arkham game played out with guns instead of fists. There’s a measured rhythm to how the action is staged in John Wick that gives it a cleanliness of execution that we often see in the best action games of the day. It doesn’t hurt that John Wick himself was made into a playable character in Payday 2, further showcasing how films and games are no longer the strangest of bedfellows.